As I am putting down these words on an empty page, I have begun to write a sentence that, when it is finished, will be the beginning of a chapter on certain problems of Beginning.
The sentence is finished. But is it true?
The reader does not know whether it is true before he has finished reading the chapter and can judge whether it is indeed a sermon on the sentence as its text. Nor do I know at this time, for the chapter is yet unwritten; and although I have a general idea of its construction, I know from experience that new ideas have a habit of emerging while the writing is going on, compelling changes in the construction and making the beginning unsuitable. Unless we want to enjoy the delights of a Sternean stream of consciousness, the story has no beginning before it has come to its end. What then comes first: the beginning or the end?
Neither the beginning nor the end comes first. The question rather points to whole, a thing called "chapter," with a variety of dimensions. This whole has an extension in space as a body of letters written or printed as pages. It then has a temporal dimension in the process of being written or being read. And finally it has a dimension of meaning, neither spatial nor temporal, in the existential process of the quest for truth in which both the reader and the writer are engaged. Is then the whole, with its spatio-temporal and existential dimensions, the answer to the question: What comes first?
The whole as a literary unit called "chapter" is not the answer either. By its character of a chapter in a book, the whole points beyond itself to the intricate problems of communication between reader and writer. The book is meant to be read; it is an event in a vast social field of thought and language, of writing and read¬ing about matters that the members of the field believe to be of concern for their existence in truth. The whole is no beginning in an absolute sense; it is no beginning of anything at all unless it has a function in a communion of existential concern; and the communion of concern as a social field depends for its existence on the communicability of the concern through language. Back we are referred, the reader and I, to the words, for they have begun before I have begun to put them down. Was the word in the beginning after all?
Well, in order to convey its meaning, the chapter must be intelligible; it must be written in a language common to reader and writer, in this case English; and this language must be written according to contemporary standards of word usage, grammar, sen¬tence building, punctuation, paragraphing, so that the reader will not encounter improper obstacles to his effort of understanding the chapter's meaning. But that is not enough. For the chapter is not a piece of information about familiar objects of the external world; rather, it seeks to communicate an act of participation in the quest for truth. Besides satisfying standards of intelligibility in the everyday sense of reference to objects, the language must be common in the sense of communicating the meanings in the area of the existential quest; it must be able to convey the meanings of a philosopher's experience, meditation, and exegetic analysis.
This philosopher's language, however, does not begin with the present chapter either, but has been structured by a millennial history of the philosophers' quest for truth, a history that has not stopped at some point in the past but is continuing in the present effort between reader and writer. The social field constituted by the philosophers' language, thus, is not limited to communication through the spoken and written word among contemporaries, but extends historically from a distant past, through the present, into the future.